Violinist Sean Mackin reflects upon the past and future of Yellowcard, including lineup changes, the disappointing sales of Paper Walls, doing something different on Lights and Sounds, the band’s forthcoming hiatus, and being remembered as a positive influence.
Tonight is the second-to-last show. How’s the tour been?
It’s been amazing. I’m kind of in the band because of playing acoustic and stuff. That’s some of the sounds I’m really attracted to. I love rocking out, but this really gives us an opportunity to show off the vocal harmonies and the violin melodies that kind of get buried at the full-on rock shows. So it’s going really good, man. We’re having a great time.
You played those two shows in L.A. last year and one of those was acoustic. Is that were the idea came from for this acoustic tour?
Kind of. We’ve always really wanted to do an acoustic tour, it just never really worked out. The timing on this particular tour was perfect. LP had some stuff he had to take care of. I’m sure you know his grandma got sick, which isn’t the entire reason why he’s home, but it just worked out that we got to do the tour acoustic. He’s still a partner in the company. He still gets his quote-unquote “cut” of the tour. He’s still my business partner. It just worked out great. He came out to the Orlando show and the kids gave him a standing ovation. It was pretty cool.
I know some of your all-acoustic songs, like “Rough Draft” and “Firewater,” are some of the big fan favorites. Are there any plans to possibly record an acoustic EP, or something like that?
We’ve talked about doing an acoustic album, or whatever. Right now, we’re not really sure on what’s going on in the music industry. Even though we’re on Capitol Records, we’re not even quite sure if Capitol Records is a complete entity right now. So that’s all thanks to the people that don’t buy records, but it is what it is. I love music. It’s been a part of my life since I was six, so record label or not I’m going to figure out a way to do something musically.
Did you start playing the violin at six?
Yeah, when I was six. My mom made me do it. She’s Japanese in a very straightforward, disciplined Japanese home. She’s like, “You play golf and tennis. You play this musical instrument.” My brother played the piano. He played golf and tennis. She’s like, “If you guys want to play any other sports, you have to do that with any extra time, but when you’re under my roof these are my gifts to you. This is what will set you up for your life.” I mean business wise, every businessman plays golf, you know? Growing up playing golf, now I understand why because people are like, “Oh, let’s go play golf,” or whatever. But that’s how I started off playing violin. She kind of made me do it.
Do you play anything besides violin?
Yeah, I play guitar just for composition. I’m pretty horrible at it, but I understand like chords and stuff.
Do you play piano at all?
A little bit of piano. I think I know more guitar than I know piano. I have good finger coordination, but my both hand coordination is pretty poor. With the beauty of computers now, you can sit down and play one hand and then sit down and play the other hand. It doesn’t really matter.
So after this tour, are you going to be going out on another tour in the near future?
Right now, we’re kind of labeling it like as indefinite. We’re kind of having a break for a little bit. We’ve been touring for a long time, and we don’t know what’s going on with the record label. I think Ryan’s going to move back east, so we’re all just going to take a little bit of a break.
Paper Walls came out last summer. I loved it. I thought it was one of the best records from last year and it should have been huge, but it didn’t really go anywhere. Why do you think that is?
[Laughs] I don’t know. They’re all theories, really. Part of it’s right place, right time. Part of it’s songs. Part of it’s other bands and their songs. I mean, you look at who’s out there and there is musical talent involved, but it’s not like when you’re racing cars or when you’re playing basketball. At the end of the game, there’s a score. This is the better team, or the better person, or whatever.
In music, it’s all subjective. Last year, Paramore was fantastic. That girl can sing lights out. They’re young kids and they’re nice guys. I can’t say we sing better than them or our song is better. It’s all subjective. The powers that be, or the mob and the masses, didn’t take to us as many people took to other artists.
Then with the record labels left and right just dropping like flies, you know, it’s crazy. But we had such great feedback. A lot of our fans from the old days that grew up were like, “Well, I was there for you in the beginning, and then I started listening to other stuff, but I love this record Paper Walls.” And we thank them for that, and people came out to shows.
We’ve been doing it for a long time. Maybe had we had another single, a hit or whatever they call it, things might have been different. But the record label pulled out, so I don’t really know. I guess that’s a longwinded, “I don’t know.”
I thought if they would have released “Keeper” as a single, that song maybe could have been your biggest hit yet.
That was supposed to go next, and then they were talking about “Shadows and Regrets” having like this Green Day, “Time Of Your Life” type feel, very nostalgic thing. We were very hopeful to have three singles, and it just didn’t work out. We’re kind of restructuring the business and trying to figure out how to move forward.
It’s really hard to support a lifestyle now with ticket sales being down and stuff like that. We’re just trying to do whatever we can. We’re going to take a little break to figure some stuff out and keep writing songs. Ryan’s so creative. He never stops. I got about 10 songs on the backburner, so we’re just going to see what happens with us and the business aspect. But musically, I don’t think it’s ever going to stop us from doing anything like that.
So you’re not going to be breaking up any time soon?
Oh, I hope not. If we are, I don’t know about it. They’re probably kicking me out next [laughs]. I hope not, though.
Now, I just talked to Starting Line last week at Bamboozle.
How was that show? Was the show good?
Yeah, I thought they played really well.
I know this is their farewell tour.
Yeah, but they only played for like a half hour because it’s Bamboozle. Anyways, they’re on the same label group as you and I’ve noticed there’s like this growing trend where a lot of bands are getting messed up by the whole business side of things. You guys have been experiencing some of that lately. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I mean it kind of sucks, but you can’t fight it. Metallica, the biggest rock band of the last 15 years, tried to fight the whole piracy thing – downloading, whatever, illegal file sharing – but it doesn’t go anywhere. People are going to do it. I mean, I’ve even taken people’s music off their iPod. You know what I’m saying?
It’s also difficult because when we played music when we were 21 or 22 or 23, we were living in a van and things were a little bit different. But now we’re like 28, 29 – you got to start thinking about families and futures. At this point without a record label, without someone supporting you or helping, it’s really just a relationship. So we’re talking about getting back in a van. It’s kind of difficult for, I’m sure if not all of us, a couple people to think about that. So there’s really no telling what’s going to happen.
I think that this is just a shift in balance and maybe in a couple years it’ll go back to the way it was, the way music was intended to be. This’ll filter out the men from the boys type of a thing, but it really is a difficult thing. We’ve always had such great fans and such a great following, people who have loyally bought our records and been there for us.
Unfortunately it’s not just us, but the Starting Line are at the point in their life where they’re like, “We have to do something to take care of our life.” People aren’t coming to the shows like they used to, whether they don’t like the songs, or we’re getting older, or our fans are getting older and going to different shows or just working all the time. It’s all a part of evolution and that sort of life cycle. We don’t really have an answer for it right now, but it’s something I’m not scared to take on. It’s just part of life, I guess.
Throughout the band’s history there’s been a lot of internal problems, like members coming in and out, and you’re currently without a bassist right now since Pete left. How have you been able to deal with that and what effect has it had?
Josh Portman played with us on our last tour and he’s a great guy. I think that with the history of the band and with what we stood for when we started, we were like a circle of friends who grew up together. When you meet people at the age of 15… I don’t know. How old are you?
22, so you’re still maybe in touch with some of those people. But, you know, I’m 28. I’ll be 29 in like 10 days, so 13 years later. Even Ben Harper, who was my oldest friend and my brother and him played soccer, somewhere in the game of life he took a right when I took a left. That’s just kind of what happens. It’s very difficult to have what has turned into a business with basically kids and friends. I might be a little bit more able to take on some things professionally that maybe other people aren’t, and then they’re not willing to grow up, you know?
So it’s much different when you start a business with a bunch of 18-year-olds than when you do with some college graduates or with some 30-year-olds who kind of see what is going on and what it’s really about. It’s not really about T-shirt businesses or record companies, or whatever. It’s about music. There’s a little bit of politics in there, but basically it’s just good manners.
Some people compromise for the way that things are and they go a different way. God bless them and whatever they’re doing in their future, but I’m still here because not only am I friends with these guys, I’ve been friends with these guys for a long time, but I love music. So we can write someone in the band, but it’s like they really haven’t been through what we’ve gone through. It’s been a 10-year journey for Yellowcard, really, with LP and I only being the original members, the last two standing.
It’s really hard, especially with what we’ve gone through in the bass player department, just to kind of wash our hands of it and go like, OK, well now we need a new guy. We’re going to write him in. So, we were just going to hire someone. Josh was a great guy, and now we’re playing acoustic. We have a guy named Peter Jacobson playing cello, which is holding down the low end. We don’t really need a bass player on an acoustic tour, so thus far it’s just worked out really well. I think we got a pretty solid grasp on the people in the band that still really want to be in the band. You know what I’m saying? So that’s kind of our, or at least my, theory on why we don’t really need a bass player right now.
Shifting gears a little bit, Lights and Sounds was your least pop-punk record and a little bit darker and more political. How do you view that record now?
I view that record as a great creative escape for us. I think it’s real difficult to be a singer and be under a magnifying glass like that. Even being a backup singer and a part of the band, somewhat of a side wingman for Ryan, I never really got the scope that he got. The cornering and how people were just like, “Oh, you sing ‘Ocean Ave.,’ so you’re this guy.” We had a stage to show people that we were more than “Ocean Ave.,” more than one song, or more than pop-punk. Not that there was something wrong with it, but just that we wanted to show that we had a little depth to us, I guess.
A lot of people called it ambitious or whatever, but at the end of the day we had an opportunity to do something different. Instead of writing the same record twice, which probably would have happened where, had we written another super pop record, people would have been like, “Oh, they just wrote the same songs again.” You know what I’m saying? So, we wanted to take the road less traveled. Did we alienate some fans? Maybe.
Ryan’s also pretty outspoken about how he went through a dark period in his life. Being 24 and coming off of having a pop sensation hit like that and selling two million records. Like I said earlier in the interview, we were really just a bunch of kids. So really not knowing what to do with that, and then just making a decision and going, we want to do something different. We want to show people that we’re not just a one-hit wonder. We have a diverse palette of sounds that we would like to demonstrate.
Whether people liked them or not, I don’t think that was our goal. Sometimes you want people to notice you, and some days you just want to blend in. I’m not saying that we were blending in, but we definitely wanted to be like, we are not a one-dimensional band.
Being a violin player and doing all the arrangements and stuff like that, I was over in my own little world arranging multipart compositions to go within a rock song. It’s not really an easy thing to do. So, I think looking back we wanted to show people that there were some different elements within the band, and I think we tied that back together with Paper Walls.
I know Lights and Sounds, as you said, had a mixed reaction with fans, and then Paper Walls seemed to revert back to that Ocean Ave., older kind of style. Was that intentional at all or did it happen naturally?
It was as natural as it can. I think without having pressure on us… I remember Ryan saying like, “I think I just want to have fun a little bit.” With the first song, I was just like, “LP, just play the Pulley beat right here. Do it like this.” We just got into it and were like, “You know what? It doesn’t really matter. Let’s write a song. People are going to like it. We still have roots in that. We love that sound.” I love the freakin’ cut tempo, you know, NOFX, Pulley beat. I grew up loving those bands, and LP plays it as good as any. So we just wanted to do something, maybe throw it back, and consciously or subconsciously that’s just part of how we write music.
I’ve noticed with the band and the lyrics you guys try to deliver more of a positive message most of the time. How do you feel about that?
I feel great about it. I think there’s enough darkness in the world. Everyone always has their pitfalls. No one’s perfect. We’re all human. I always try and be as positive as possible and not to get sucked into that. You’re always bound to have a bad day, you know, but I feel pretty strongly about having our fans look to us and ask us for advice. We’ll kind of tell them what we think is best, or kind of what we’ve been through to keep their chin up. You can always get stuck in the darker periods, as some of the members of our band have. So, I feel pretty good about being positive.
When I saw you guys last year, Ryan made a little comment I thought was interesting. He said something along the lines of, “Well, here’s another song I wrote about a love I’ll never be able to achieve or attain,” or something like that. Do you think that is kind of a theme in the band’s work?
Well, I mean we’re all kind of romantics. He definitely hasn’t really found anyone to share his life with. He’s also very focused on his business and his career and his music. I guess judging from the side, it’s kind of unfortunate that he’s always so pushed that he never gets to slow down enough to enjoy that side.
He comes from a family where his grandparents have been married 60 years. His parents have been married 30 years, so I’m sure it’s really hard. Especially in a world like this where girls are just throwing themselves at him, in the nicest sense, but it’s like how is he supposed to find a solid girl that likes him for him that doesn’t have any judgment on him already because he’s Ryan from Yellowcard? You know what I’m saying? So, it’s really hard for him to find a girl.
I mean, dudes write songs about girls. That’s how it is. Chicks write songs about dudes. Sometimes dudes write songs about other dudes, like Rufus Wainwright. I don’t have a problem with it. He’s a great songwriter. Love is one of the strongest muses for any musician.
I know “Dear Bobby” is kind of about his grandparents and stuff. How did that song come to be?
It’s a great song, man. I’m really thankful I get to write music with someone that’s so lyrically creative like that. He’s a great narrator. The vibe was a little different, but we’ve always taken departures on our records. We’ve sort of had songs that are kind of a little bit different in the middle, whether it’s an interlude in the record or whatever.
I think with that one the lyrical content and subject matter were so strong that we all really attached to it. We all know his family. He knows my family. So it just turned out to be a great thing, you know?
In the past, bands have always incorporated string sections and whatnot, but you’re the first band that I know of that took the violin and really incorporated it into punk rock and stuff. Where did that original idea come from?
From playing acoustic at parties when we were hanging out when we were like 16. That sort of Yellowcard vibe is basically a group of friends that used to drink beer, hang out and cause a ruckus. We’d bring out our guitars and play some music, and that’s pretty much it. I like NOFX and I don’t play guitar, I play violin. Ben Harper was just like, “Hey, you should come jam a song with us.” I was always hanging out anyway, so it just kind of evolved into that.
When you were first starting out, what did people think about the whole violin thing?
Everyone’s been really supportive. I remember in 2002 – I want to say in like Boise, Idaho, or something – there were a couple haters. They were just heckling me. Being a violin player, I’m used to getting picked on. People are always picking fights with you, right?
At the end of the show, Tony Sly was there from No Use for a Name, and he was like, “Man, that was awesome.” Then these kids just came up and were like, “Dude, you were singing harmonies and violin. We didn’t mean anything by it. We were just kind of being jerks, I guess.” And they completely apologized.
I guess my whole career people have always been on either side of the fence, but I think if you meet me you know that I’m kind of a nice guy and I love music. If you don’t like our songs, that’s fine, but I definitely am not a horrible musician. I’m not the best in the world, but it’s like what is there not to like?
Every band from Green Day to the Beatles to Jimmy Eat World – they have strings in their music. It’s been something that’s been in rock music and pop music since the beginning of time. Now people are just putting it in Pro Tools or in a computer and playing it live over their stuff. With Yellowcard, at least when we put it in the music we have it at the live show.
On Lights and Sounds you did a lot of arranging, like you said earlier. How do you compare that to just playing the violin, and do you like one more than the other?
I like both. I think there’s plusses and minuses to both. When I arrange anything, I usually put the really good melodies in the cello. Our cello player, who’s not on tour with us who as done most of our recordings, her name is Christine Choi and she is amazing. So I always give her the good melodies, just slide them in there. Sometimes I’ll play something on the violin and Neil or Ryan will be like, “Oh, that’s in the way of the vocal.” So I slip it in the cello, but I don’t always get to play those melodies.
I don’t know. There’s a place for all of it. I’m really a modest composer. I didn’t go to Julliard or anything crazy. I’d like to keep doing arrangements for our band or any other band, or do film scoring one day, or something like that. That’d be kind of cool. I love John Williams. He’s great.
Yes! That’s what I like to hear.
I like Danny Elfman too, but Danny Elfman doesn’t have the memorable melodies. John Williams is like the epitome. You can sing Jurassic Park, you can sing Star Wars, you can sing Superman. You can sing all of his stuff. Danny Elfman’s got such great sounds, such great tonal painting, but I can’t really sing anything. Like Big Fish, Tim Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas.
I can’t sing any of the melodies, though. He’s such a great arranger, such a great composer. I think those are the two that always come up. I always lean on John Williams because I’m such a melody guy. That’s one of my roles with Yellowcard. Sometimes Ryan will get stuck, so I’ll be like, “Oh here, check out this melody.” Sometimes it works, you know? That’s what I’ve always been drawn to – big melodies.
With everything you’ve been through and experienced, the good and the bad, if you had to start over again knowing all that, is there anything you’d do differently?
No. I don’t live wishing I could take things back. I don’t live life with regrets, you know? Sometimes you get dealt a good hand and sometimes you get dealt a bad hand. Right now, today in Pomona I look back and I get to play violin for a living. Not many people get to do that.
A lot of orchestra people come up and they’re like, “Man, you’re like such a role model for all us orchestra people.” It’s like, maybe I am, but I really enjoy playing music like this. Things could be way worse. I grew up working at Chili’s, and I even didn’t mind that lifestyle, you know? I’ve definitely seen some things that most normal people don’t get to see, so I’m very lucky to be where I’m at.
What do you want Yellowcard to kind of be remembered for or leave as your legacy?
In 100 years, what’s our legacy? Is that what you mean?
[Laughs] Maybe not 100, but down the line.
Well, definitely not tomorrow, or in 10 years, because that would suck. I don’t know. I’d like people to remember us as decent musicians. Good people, good songs. That’s it, you know?
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press